This article is adapted from Joe's appearance on the CMO Convo podcast.


Navigating the intricacies of agency partnerships in marketing is a critical endeavor for businesses striving for growth and differentiation. It's not just about selecting an agency, but forming a relationship that brings strategic value and drives tangible results. 

I'm Joe Zappa, founder and CEO of Sharp Pen Media. My experience has taught me that the success of any marketing initiative heavily relies on choosing the right agency and working with them effectively. My approach centers on strategic thinking in agency partnerships. It's crucial to develop a narrative and go-to-market strategy that not only sets you apart but also drives revenue. 

It's about creating more than just media placements or blog posts; it's about making a tangible business impact.

In this article, I'll guide you through the essential considerations for selecting a marketing agency and fostering a productive, results-driven partnership.

CMO Convo | Making your marketing agency partnership worth it | Joe Zappa
Agency partnerships can have many benefits, but they can carry considerable costs. And in a world where CMOs need to be counting every single penny of your budget, you can’t afford to make the wrong choices.

Key considerations for CMOs in choosing the right agency

The primary challenge CMOs face when selecting a marketing agency lies in the lack of a strategic vision prior to the selection process. Often, there's a disconnect in expectations, where companies anticipate strategy development from their agency, without ensuring that the agency is actually equipped to deliver on that front. 

In my view, there are three critical factors to consider when choosing an agency: people, process, and audience.

  • People: It's vital to assess whether the agency has the right team for your specific needs. Are the people who will be working on your account experienced and capable of accomplishing what you need?
  • Process: Does the agency have a clear and proven method for achieving your goals? It's important to look for an agency with a distinct intellectual property or a well-defined approach that aligns with what you're trying to achieve.
  • Audience: Experience with your specific industry or audience is crucial. For instance, if your focus is on HR technology, does the agency have experience in communicating effectively with that particular audience?

As a CEO, CMO, VP of PR, or in any decision-making capacity, having clarity on these three aspects can significantly aid in choosing an agency that will not only meet but exceed your goals. It's about ensuring alignment in expectations, processes, and expertise to foster a successful agency-client relationship.

Distinguishing between strategic and tactical agency partnerships

A common misconception in the industry is equating high-cost agency services with strategic value. However, in reality, most agencies are primarily tactical in their approach. This distinction becomes evident when we delve into the elements of people, process, and audience.

Strategic vs. tactical focus

When engaging an agency, especially for a significant monthly fee like $15,000, it's crucial to verify who on the team has the expertise in driving both a marketing and a communication strategy. The mere presence of a high price tag doesn't guarantee strategic depth.

It's not just about who is involved, but also about the process or approach they adopt. A strategic agency should have a clear methodology, distinct from a tactical agency that might limit itself to basic tasks like messaging or media outreach. The strategic process should involve deep thinking about the unique story of the brand, how it differs from competitors, and the most effective go-to-market strategy.

An essential aspect often overlooked is how the agency's strategy ties to measurable outcomes, particularly in terms of pipeline and revenue generation. A cohesive strategy must include clear metrics and an understanding of how the agency's efforts will translate into tangible business results.

The gap in agency-client relationships often lies in the lack of a concrete agreement on measuring the impact of the strategy on revenue generation. If there's no one in the room capable of connecting these dots, it indicates a strategic shortfall in the approach to the agency relationship.

Discerning between strategic and tactical agency partnerships hinges on the ability of the agency to provide not just services, but a holistic, results-driven approach that aligns with the client's business objectives. This requires a careful evaluation of the agency's personnel, their process, and the practical applicability of their strategy to the client's specific industry and audience.

Assessing agency expertise and experience for effective partnerships

When seeking to establish an effective agency partnership, the key is to meticulously evaluate the agency's team and their experience. This scrutiny is essential because agencies, naturally, will present themselves in the best light during pitches. However, it's crucial to dig deeper to understand who exactly will be handling your account and their relevant expertise.

Agencies should be transparent about who will be directly involved in your account. While it's common to interact with high-level executives like the CEO during the sales pitch, they often are not the ones managing the account day-to-day. Understanding who the actual account team members are is critical.

Once you know who is on the account team, the next step is to assess their specific experiences and accomplishments. For instance, if they claim to enhance your marketing strategy and impact your revenue, what evidence can they provide of having achieved similar results for other clients or in their past roles?

There's a marked difference between a team member who excels in tactical communications, like having a strong network in your industry’s media, and someone who has strategic experience, such as a former CMO capable of overseeing a comprehensive marketing strategy. It's important to distinguish between these skill sets to ensure your agency can deliver on the strategic level you require.

Ideally, someone on the account team should have a track record of helping companies in similar situations to yours. For example, if they have successfully assisted a company in growing from $20 million to $50 million in revenue, they should be able to articulate how they achieved this. Absence of such strategic insight and experience is a common issue and can be a red flag.

When choosing an agency, it’s not just about the pitch or the reputation of the agency as a whole. It's about the specific individuals who will be working on your account, their background, and their proven ability to deliver strategic results. This detailed evaluation is crucial for ensuring that the agency partnership is not only promising in theory but effective in practice.

Tactical agencies and industry expertise in agency selection

In the realm of marketing agencies, there is a definite place for tactical agencies, particularly for companies that have a well-thought-out marketing strategy and just need assistance in execution. The challenge arises when companies think they only need tactical support but actually require more strategic guidance.

If a company already has a comprehensive marketing and content strategy in place, spearheaded by a competent CMO or VP of Content Marketing, then a tactical agency focused solely on content creation or bandwidth extension can be a perfect fit. It's about recognizing when your needs are purely tactical.

The issue is that many companies underestimate their need for strategic guidance. They might initially seek only tactical help, not realizing that their broader strategy requires refinement or development.

The size of an agency can influence the type of service it offers. Larger agencies might have specialists for specific roles, whereas smaller agencies might offer more generalist services.

While industry expertise is not always a prerequisite for effective strategy development – as skills are often transferable across industries – it can be a significant advantage. An agency with experience in your specific industry is likely to have deeper insights and a more nuanced understanding of your unique challenges and opportunities.

When choosing between agencies, if all other factors are equal, preference might naturally lean towards an agency with industry experience. However, this doesn't diminish the value that a skilled and experienced agency from another industry can bring to the table.

The decision to partner with a tactical or strategic agency should be based on a clear understanding of your company's needs. If your marketing strategy is already robust and you merely require execution, a tactical agency can be a great asset. However, if there's a need for strategic development, opting for an agency with relevant experience and expertise becomes critical. 

This decision also depends on whether industry-specific knowledge is crucial for your objectives, balancing the need for specialized expertise against the broader strategic capabilities of the agency.

Considering time zones and regional expertise

The significance of factors like time zones and regional expertise in choosing a marketing agency largely depends on the specific needs and expectations from the agency.

If your primary expectation from the agency is strategic guidance and the delivery of specific marketing outputs, time zone differences and regional expertise might be less critical. However, if your focus is on leveraging the agency’s connections, especially in a specific region or industry, these factors become much more important.

The challenge intensifies in cases where industry-specific knowledge is crucial. For example, if you need to engage with European ad tech reporters for a PR campaign, having an account team that lacks connections in that specific region and industry could be a significant obstacle. Success in such scenarios often hinges on the agency's regional network and understanding.

The decision should be guided by the people, process, audience framework. When the requirement is for people-based assistance, like forging connections, the location and industry expertise of the agency gain prominence. You would ideally want an agency that is well-versed with the region and stakeholders you aim to target.

This concept is analogous to business development. Just as hiring a biz dev professional without relevant regional connections would be ineffective for reaching decision-makers in Europe, the same applies to marketing efforts. The agency’s ability to navigate regional specifics can be a determinant of success.

If the goal is to leverage the agency's network and regional expertise, then factors like time zone alignment and deep regional knowledge become essential. However, if the focus is more on strategic guidance and deliverables, these factors may be less critical. Understanding the nature of the support you need from the agency is key to making an informed and effective decision.

Structuring the search for an agency partner

The journey to finding the right agency partner should begin with a clear understanding of the core problem that needs solving. This clarity is paramount in guiding the search and ensuring that the chosen agency can meet your specific needs.

Start by assessing whether you need strategic or tactical help. This depends largely on your internal resources. For instance, if you lack in-house marketing expertise, you might lean towards seeking strategic agency help. Conversely, if you have a well-established marketing department, you might only require tactical support.

The level of guidance you need should inform your search. A strategic partner is more suitable if you're looking for comprehensive marketing leadership, while a tactical agency might be better for specific, well-defined tasks.

Once you've identified the problem, the next step is to envision the ideal candidate to address it. What specific experiences and skills should they possess? This helps in narrowing down potential consultants or agencies.

When you start interacting with agencies, it's crucial to delve into the specifics. If, for example, your requirement is HR tech-specific content, you would need to evaluate each agency's understanding of your audience, their approach to content creation in your field, and the team members who will be actively involved in your account.

Throughout this process, keep focusing on the 'process, people, audience' framework. It's not just about finding an agency that understands your problem, but also one that has the right people to solve it and a process that aligns with your objectives.

The key to a successful agency partnership lies in starting with a clear identification of the problem you need solved, followed by a thorough evaluation of potential agencies based on their ability to address this problem. This involves assessing their experience, team composition, and process, ensuring that they align with your specific requirements and goals.

Building effective strategic agency partnerships

Once you've chosen the right agency, it's crucial to establish a productive working relationship, especially for long-term, strategic partnerships.

Key agency personas to engage with:

  • Account manager: This is the primary point of contact who oversees the general aspects of the agency's services and your account.
  • Strategist: An essential figure in strategic partnerships, the strategist drives the creative and strategic work. Close collaboration with them is crucial.
  • Tacticians: These include specialists like writers, media relations experts, or project managers, who handle the specific tactical elements of the strategy.

Internal stakeholder engagement

For a strategic vision to be effective, it's not just about the CMO's alignment with the agency; it involves getting buy-in from the entire C-suite, including the CEO, COO, and CFO. This collective alignment is necessary, especially when substantial investments are involved post-strategic planning.

Collaborate with the agency’s strategist to define what success looks like on a monthly and quarterly basis. Establish leading indicators that can demonstrate progress, even if the ultimate goal, like a significant revenue increase, is not immediately apparent.

The CMO should facilitate conversations between the agency’s strategist and other C-suite executives to ensure that everyone's views are reflected in the strategy. This alignment is crucial for justifying the investment and setting realistic expectations.

It's important to monitor leading indicators like share of voice, web traffic, or marketing qualified leads (MQLs) as signs of progress. These metrics can help justify the investment in the agency in the early stages before the long-term goals, such as revenue growth, are achieved.

Forging a successful strategic agency partnership requires more than just selecting the right agency. It involves deep engagement with key agency personnel, ensuring internal stakeholder buy-in, and setting clear, agreed-upon success metrics. This holistic approach ensures that everyone, both within your organization and the agency, is aligned and working towards the same objectives.

Fostering a collaborative agency relationship for strategic success

Creating a successful partnership with a marketing agency hinges on collaboration and communication, both of which are essential for balancing creative freedom and control.

A truly effective agency partnership is not just a client-vendor relationship; it's a collaboration. This means regular, meaningful communication to ensure that the agency's actions are aligned with the company's vision and goals.

Especially for strategic, high-goal engagements, the involvement of internal stakeholders is vital. It's not uncommon for agencies to face challenges in getting timely responses or feedback from clients, which can impede progress.

While traditional phone calls are important for detailed discussions, the modern landscape of asynchronous working allows for a variety of communication methods. Utilizing tools like Google Docs for ongoing feedback and collaboration can be effective.

Initiatives like half-day workshops, whether in-person or virtual, can be instrumental in building trust and understanding between the agency and key company figures like the CMO, VP of Marketing, and CEO. These sessions can help identify what's working, what's not, and set the stage for a fruitful collaboration.

It's not uncommon for CEOs and other leaders to be skeptical about the effectiveness of marketing. In such cases, it's crucial for the agency and internal marketing leadership to work together to address these doubts, establish clear goals, and demonstrate how marketing can drive tangible results.

Successful marketing leaders and agencies understand the importance of this collaborative approach. They are adept at aligning their strategies with the business's needs, addressing skepticism, and establishing clear, mutually agreed-upon goals and metrics.

The key to maximizing the value of a strategic agency partnership lies in fostering a collaborative environment. This involves regular communication, involving key internal stakeholders, using modern communication tools effectively, and establishing trust and clear goals from the outset. Such a partnership ensures that the agency's strategic insights and creative efforts are fully aligned with the company's objectives, leading to more impactful marketing outcomes.

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Assessing the effectiveness of agency partnerships beyond performance metrics

In evaluating an agency partnership, it's essential to consider factors beyond just marketing performance metrics. The nature and quality of the relationship itself are crucial indicators.

Key indicators of a healthy agency relationship:

  • Effective communication: The agency's ability to communicate clearly and effectively is fundamental. This means providing straightforward, jargon-free updates and being honest about the progress and challenges of the marketing efforts.
  • Honesty and transparency: A significant issue with some agency relationships is a lack of genuine service, where agencies might resort to using flattering language or technical jargon without delivering real results. This can lead to mistrust and dissatisfaction.
  • Understanding of your business: The agency should have a deep understanding of your business, its unique challenges, and objectives. This alignment is crucial for the agency to deliver strategic value that resonates with your specific needs.
  • Strategic value and alignment: It's not just about executing tasks; the agency should bring strategic value to the table. This involves aligning with your company's goals and contributing to strategic planning and execution.
  • Ongoing measurement of partnership value: There should be a clear and agreed-upon method to measure the ongoing value of the partnership. This encompasses not just marketing results but also the quality of service, responsiveness, and contribution to strategic objectives.

The effectiveness of the relationship isn't solely determined by the apparent friendliness or professionalism of your account manager. It's more about the clarity and alignment on goals, understanding of your business, and the measurable value the agency brings.

While the quality and effectiveness of the work are primary indicators of a successful agency partnership, other aspects like clear communication, honesty, strategic alignment, and ongoing measurement of value are equally important. These factors ensure that the relationship is not only productive in terms of marketing outcomes but also healthy and sustainable in the long term.

Nurturing a respectful and effective agency-client relationship

In today's market, where choices abound, it's crucial for both agencies and clients to maintain a respectful and productive working relationship. This mutual respect and understanding are foundational for a successful partnership.

The era of tolerating mistreatment in business relationships is fading. Both clients and agencies should demand respectful and clear communication. If a relationship feels wrong or disrespectful, there are always other options available.

Just as agencies should not tolerate mistreatment from clients, clients should not accept poor behavior from agencies. The focus should be on clear, respectful communication and alignment on goals.

Marketing often involves experimentation, and it's important for both sides to understand and accept this. Even the most strategic agency partners will need to try different approaches, some of which may not work as expected. This process should be approached with openness and a willingness to learn and iterate, rather than with frustration or blame.

A good partnership is characterized by clear, even-keeled communication. It's about understanding that mistakes and failures are part of the process and addressing them constructively.

C-suite leaders, such as CEOs and CMOs, are often effective partners because they tend to possess higher emotional intelligence. This includes the ability to trust, communicate effectively, and think long-term. They are generally less focused on immediate results and more on the big picture and long-term goals.

Trust is a critical component in these relationships. High-level business leaders understand the importance of trusting their partners and focusing on strategic, long-term objectives rather than short-term gains.

The most effective agency-client relationships are those built on mutual respect, clear communication, and a shared understanding of marketing as an experimental field. Both parties should approach the partnership with a focus on respect, openness to experimentation, and a commitment to long-term strategic thinking. This approach not only fosters a healthier working environment but also paves the way for more successful and sustainable marketing outcomes.

Golden rules for choosing and working with marketing agencies

Choosing an agency:

  • Evaluate process, people, and audience: Ensure that the agency has a clear process, competent people, and relevant experience with your industry's audience. Check for case studies or evidence of past successes relevant to your goals.
  • Strategic vs. tactical needs: Determine whether you need a strategic partner or just tactical help. If your company lacks a clear marketing direction, look for strategic guidance. For execution of well-defined strategies, focus on agencies with strong tactical capabilities.
  • Industry experience and expertise: Choose an agency with experience in your specific industry. This is especially important for content creation and other industry-specific tasks.

Working with an agency:

  • Set clear goals and metrics: Establish clear objectives and metrics to measure progress towards those goals. This is crucial for strategic partnerships, where the agency should assist in defining these metrics and aligning them with different budget levels.
  • Prioritize clear communication: Emphasize straightforward, jargon-free communication. Avoid over-complication; simplicity and clarity in communication are key to understanding and alignment on objectives.
  • Maintain openness and flexibility: Be open to experimentation and iteration. Understand that not every initiative will be successful, and be prepared to adapt and refine strategies based on results and feedback.
  • Foster mutual respect and understanding: Ensure that the relationship is based on mutual respect and a shared commitment to achieving the set goals. Both parties should be aligned on the vision and approach.

Selecting the right marketing agency involves careful consideration of their process, the expertise of their team, and their experience with your industry's audience. Once chosen, maintaining a productive relationship with the agency is grounded in clear, honest communication, well-defined goals and metrics, and mutual respect for each other's expertise and contributions. These principles pave the way for a successful and impactful marketing partnership.


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